Someone who embodied their values

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Commercial Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Submitted: January 14, 2018

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Submitted: January 14, 2018



Pleasant though the two week holiday break in Thailand had been, Toby Heath (Daily
Express columnist and BBC political pundit) sighed with relief as he opened the door to his
Islington home. Abroad was great for short periods, but he missed the comforts of home. He
fixed himself a pink gin and tonic, put on some Abba and then flicked through his post. Most
of it could wait until tomorrow, but one letter awakened his curiosity. It turned out to be an
invitation from Channel 4 to take part in a programme sleeping rough for a week in London.
‘Noooo!’ Toby said out aloud through a small laugh, rather the way he often began his
follow ups to his rival Guardian pundit on Sundays, ‘that’s a terrible idea!’ He chuckled again
and had another sip of his drink. The truth was he felt flattered. There was no mention of
the pay, but he knew that it would be good and would raise his profile, probably
snowballing a series of reality television offers. It was tempting, but there was no way he
could do it. It would all turn out to be horribly undignified, Channel 4 was not to be trusted
and they would for sure set out to ridicule him given his politics. 

Toby put down the letter, finished off his drink, put a quiche in the microwave and opened
up a bottle of claret. He realised that he was feeling quite elated, and though he had no
intention of mixing with low-lives for even a day he knew the cause of the elation. He’d seen
something similar on TV a few years back. He loved reality TV, especially when it dealt with
celebrities, but he’d found that particular programme irritating.  The celebrities had all gone
on about what a tough but life changing experience it had been sleeping rough and then got
all teary and hug a homeless towards the end. Cringe, cringe, they’re vermin! Eventually
he’d turned over and watched the Kardashians instead. No, it was not for him.
Yet he couldn’t quite get the letter out of his mind over the next few days. The likely spin-
offs were exciting too, it might even lead to an offer from Come Dancing! It could also
provide him with some useful material as a journalist. The project involved genuine
investigative work after all, something in rapid decline in his field, and might too provide
some useful material for the rags to riches novel which he intended to one day write. 
Perhaps he could do the programme differently, he thought; show how to get off the streets
and go on and make something of oneself.  What a whizz it would be if he could get up each
morning with a spring in his step, full of beans and a can-do attitude, and then kick some of
the other homeless in to shape, lead and inspire them and show what can be done when a
purposeful, positive, pro-active, goal-oriented approach replaces self-pity. 
As well as promoting brand Toby, it would enable him to slag off the homeless without
anyone being able to accuse him of doing it from a position of comfort. Cruel to be kind!
He’d emphasise his own tough background (in fact Clive was really from a very comfortable
middle class background) and contrast that with the life he’d built and shame the hell out of

And so, sitting on a deck chair in his back garden in late July on the hottest day of the year
with a glass of Pimms in one hand and a copy of ‘Hello’ magazine on his knee whilst waiting
for his friends to arrive for a barbecue, and aware that filming was to be done at precisely
the same time the following year, he made up his mind to do it.

As soon as he’d decided he couldn’t wait to tell his four friends who were coming round;
Sophie and Ben and Silvia and Jem. Sylvia and Jem arrived first, and as soon as they’d gone
through to the back garden and all got a Pimms in hand, he told them. Their reaction
shocked and annoyed him; they burst out laughing.

‘Oh, you silly old thing!’ said Sylvia, ‘you know perfectly well you’d never last two days, don’t
even think about it!’

‘Nonsense’, Toby replied, unable to keep the annoyance out of his voice, and then forcing
himself to speak lightly and calmly, ‘you just don’t know me! I never even had shoes as a
child we were so poor, the army was a piece of piss after my childhood.’

‘Oh come on Tobes, old boy’, said Jem. ‘Nobody’s doubting your TA stories or anything, but
you know Silvia’s right! Listen, I’m an even bigger wimp than you, but still . . . ’

Toby bit his tongue. An even bigger wimp than you! It would just make him look ridiculous
to protest though, so he forced a smile. So annoyed did he feel though that it was
impossible to completely hide it and when Silvia ten minutes later complimented him on
how fit and lean he looked (he worked out for at least an hour most days) and playfully
squeezed his bicep, he noticed her pity and felt even worse.
When Sonia and Ben arrived, Silvia insisted on letting them in and it took nearly five minutes
for them all to come through. She had  clearly prepped them. 

‘Oh, Toby’, Silvia said in a bright voice as if it had just occurred to her, ‘tell Benny and Sonia
about the Channel 4 thing!’

‘Oh that, it’s no big deal!’ Toby said breezily, ‘listen, how’s the new motor, Ben?’ 

‘Brilliant!  What’s this about Channel 4?’

Through almost gritted teeth Toby told them.

‘Well, you’d be brilliant at it, Toby’, Sonia said, ‘you being ex-army and all that and such a
butchy! You’d love all that sleeping rough with other men and . . .  but . . .’, she looked at
Ben for assistance.

‘Yeah, but there’s no need. You’ve got nothing to prove’, said Ben.

‘Exactly’, said Sonia, and both she and Silvia started nodding.

‘Look, it’s no big deal either way’, said Toby, just managing to keep his voice level. ‘Come on,
enough jaw jaw, let’s get the bangers on!’

He smiled broadly at them all, but inwardly he seethed.

Now nothing would stop him. He would do it, he determined, and he’d go in there in the
best physical condition he’d ever been in and give it everything.  When the programme
ended, no one would have any doubt that this was not only a man who despised the sickly,
syrupy, saccharine sweet sentimentality behind these ludicrous, loathsome, loony left
attempts to justify the laziness of losers and low-lives (after years of tabloid journalism,
alliteration and anger went hand in hand for him), but also a man whose own physical and
mental toughness were perfectly aligned to his political views.

He’d show them the gulf between someone like him who had come from nothing and made
it, and these spoilt grown up children who thought that they were owed a living. He actually
regretted now that filming would be in July. They should do it in February. For a week he
could put up with anything; freezing weather, lack of sleep, minimal food, and he would do
it and maintain an upbeat, cheerful manner. There’d be no Silvias, Jems, Sonias or Bens out
there doubting him after that.

A year later Toby got what he’d wished for that beautiful summer’s day a year previously.
The first day of filming was the coldest July day in recorded history, and then it started to
drizzle. He immediately found his resolve weakening. After standing around for some while
getting wet he was at last taken to a cardboard ally area in Waterloo with, he felt sure, the
roughest group of homeless people that Channel 4 had been able to assemble. Where were
those pathetic types who felt humiliated by their predicament like in the BBC production?
Apart from two guys sat on the ground smoking and quietly chatting they all appeared to be
complete nutters, jigging around with their bottles of cider and Tennent’s lager, all effing
and blinding and missing teeth and unintelligible slurred speech.

It was freezing cold that night, he was wet, he couldn’t fall asleep, and then chronic back
pain set in. Channel 4 had allowed him to take a roll up camping mat but he’d decided to
make a statement by refusing such an unnecessary luxury, but now sleeping on nothing but
a piece of cardboard was making it seize up. 

His plan for the morning was to beg. He hated begging, but was keen to show how easily an
able fellow could make a small fortune. He’d worked out his patter, neither cringy nor
aggressive, the sort of thing that - well, ok, it wouldn’t have got a penny out of him, but it
wouldn’t make him want to knife the guy and then jump on his head either. If it was good
enough for that, it would be good enough to get money out of the trendy lefties and do
gooders. Location was important (Hampstead would be ideal, wealthy and left wing) and his
plan had been to taxi it up there, using up his full allowance for the week, but making a
small fortune before taxiing it back to cardboard city. Whatever he made, and for sure it
would be a lot, he’d claim to have made double and enjoy humiliating his fellow rough
sleepers with their own ineptness. Or at least that had been the plan.

But now he didn’t feel so confident. He felt crap. To make things worse it seemed that two
of the rough sleepers had gone off to work. Apparently one of them had lost his house, wife
and kids when he’d been made redundant, but had salvaged recent bills with his name and
address on and quickly found a job as a park officer. He’d then got his homeless mate in too.
He was clearly going to be portrayed as some kind of a hero by Channel 4.

Toby was getting more and more fed up. He decided to approach the taxi rank and check prices. To his fury the first taxi driver took one glance at his dishevelled appearance and blanked him. He swore at the driver and approached the second taxi, but this one just pulled up his window and gave him the finger.He screamed at this driver too, but found that his voice was breaking, as if he was about to cry, so he walked away as quickly as his back would allow him.

He felt now that he’d had almost as much as he could take and yet he’d met up with the
production crew only fourteen hours previously. Having to listening to the bullshit about
those guys going off to work had really stuck in his gut. As if these low-lives really worked!
Probably they were just actors. The whole thing was clearly a big conspiracy, a despicable,
cruel scheme designed to portray him as heartless and right wing and glorify the people he
portrayed as wimps and scroungers. 

The sun came out though and the pills took the edge off the back pain. He knew he mustn’t
surrender. He didn’t need to go to Hampstead to beg, the centre would do; he’d still make
something of this yet. Two cameramen followed him around as he begged. The rejections
were difficult to take, but he swallowed his pride and worked hard at it and after an hour
he’d made £4. He made £5.50 in the second hour but realised he couldn’t face another
minute of it. It wasn’t just the rejection, it was him, his voice. He couldn’t stop himself
sounding whining and apologetic. He hated the sound of himself. He took a break for an
hour or so, tried again and then gave up after ten minutes just twenty pence up. 
After that he was interviewed by a Channel 4 journalist and it went appallingly. What point
was there in saying anything half way intelligent when they’d either cut if or try and trip him
up with it?  He knew how journalists worked all right, oh he knew! Eventually he exploded at
the injustice of it all. He knew that his explosion would be used too, but pleaded with them
not to. No doubt the pleading would also go in. ‘It’s a fucking set up, you bastards!’ He
screamed. He could see the cameraman smiling. 

He couldn’t believe how quickly he was falling apart. He adored reality TV and loved it when
the participants cracked up, his joy just mildly tarnished by a suspicion that it couldn’t be
completely for real. ‘Christ, you’ve only been in the house a week, you wimp!’ he’d yell at
the TV, chuckling away and sipping on a large glass of sherry or a gin and tonic. 
He’d always felt that he’d be able to last the full course, chuckling away in an amicable but
slightly removed way, yet he was in a terrible state, and after less than 24 hours! He knew
that all potential housemates for Big Brother had to list any prescriptions that they took,
which told the producers who suffered from depression, neurosis or whatever, and enabled
them to pick out highly vulnerable people, so to be cracking up quicker than any of them
was very worrying. Channel 4 were going to hang him out to dry! 

His plan had involved finding both a job and somewhere to live under his assumed identity
to show how easy it all was. Of course he was aware of the so-called catch-22 involving
needing a job to find a residence and vice-versa, but what nonsense! Why would you go in
and proclaim yourself a homeless, vagabond piece of shite, anyway? It made no sense. Sell
yourself! Fake it till you make it! Didn’t these people know anything? But now he felt less
confident. He just wasn’t in the mood – quite frankly, just finding out where the job centre
was felt like too much effort. 

He was hopeless at functioning without sleep and so he made the decision to buy some
more food, take another couple of codeine and go and find somewhere to kip, away from
the others. Of course he had to take the camera crew with him, but eventually he went off
and settled down in the doorway of a bank. But if by now Toby was perhaps owed a lucky
break, it was not to be. He couldn’t have chosen a worse place. The covered entrance to the
bank where he pitched down was used by Paul Savage, a man so infamous that a BBC
documentary had been made about him twenty years earlier. An utter thug, the man from
Widnes had once been a contender for the British heavyweight boxing title and had been
known as the hardest man in the British prison system. Paul was a bully, he could smell fear
like a dog, and had no respect for anyone. On his arrival in Durham prison twenty years
earlier, his first words screamed to his fellow inmates from the landing of the C Wing were,
‘I hear some people here hate nonces. Well, I’m a fucking nonce. Come on, let’s have you!’
It was twenty five years since he’d fought for the British title and Paul, who had been
notorious for beating up bouncers when out of prison and causing mayhem wherever he
went, had gone in to serious decline. Within a few years he’d be dead, but right now, even
though his once powerful six foot three frame was wasting away and he was living on the
streets in London, he was still capable of scaring most men, and nothing gave him greater
pleasure than scaring other men. So when Paul arrived at his spot and found Toby there and
cameras to boot, it was like all his Christmases coming at once. He went straight in to his
mad act.

First he mocked and taunted Toby, and then he fell on him. He found the codeine and
emptied half the tube in to his mouth, then picked Toby up by his ankles and shook him till
his coins fell out, laughing at the camera as he did it. Toby squealed in protest and Paul put
him down, undid his piss and shit stained trousers and started trying to force his penis in to
Toby’s mouth whilst shouting obscenities and laughing at him. And the cameraman filmed it

And then, just when Toby finally managed to scramble away, a storm broke out. They ran
for cover and soon found themselves back in cardboard ally. By the time the storm died
down Toby was a broken man. Then just as he was about to speak to the Channel 4 team
and insist that he was packing it in, the community police turned up telling them to move
on. The other homeless either ignored the police promise of a hostel or said it was bullshit,
but this, Toby immediately realised, was his chance. Not just to get off the streets, but to
show his leadership skills on camera. He thanked the police and encouraged the others to
come along. Given strength by the police presence he even started chiding them. 

But they were right. It was just bullshit. The hostel did cater for homeless people, but all the
homeless apart from Toby were deemed to be hardened cases and thus able to survive on
the streets, and so were refused a place. The only person they were prepared to take was
Toby. Toby was now embarrassed by the way that he’d chided the others. He knew that he
should turn the room down and made a slight pretence of doing so, but such a feeble one
that nobody even bothered to argue with him, they just showed him in. 

In his soaking clothes the hostel felt as cold as outside. He felt traumatised by the Paul
Savage incident, it was easily the most frightening moment of his life, and that night he once
again lay sleepless. His back was worse than ever now and a heavy cold was developing.
Each time he sneezed he felt like his spine was almost snapping.
The next morning he felt so emotionally and physically frail that about fifty yards down the
road he just stopped and sat down on the pavement. He knew he was done. All his plans
had fallen apart, even just hanging on wasn’t realistic. He didn’t have the strength any
longer to tackle this, and he didn’t want to provide Channel 4 with even more material for
ridiculing him. Besides, he had no money. Begging was his only option, and he couldn’t face
that. It was over. At that point he burst out crying, and it gave him some relief. 

He needed to meet up with the Channel 4 crew and explain his decision, and of course they
protested vehemently. But eventually he was handed back a credit card and normal life
resumed. He made no attempt to properly explain his departure, he didn’t trust himself in
his present state to say the right things. First he needed to rest up, after that he would turn
his mind to doing some kind of damage limitation exercise with regard to his failure. 

Three hours later he was lying back in a steaming hot bubble bath and drinking a very cold
bottle of Becks. Coldplay was on and a meal from a Thai Takeaway was to be delivered to his
doorstep in an hour by his favourite deliverer. After that he would go for a spin around the
Hertfordshire countryside and come home and watch five or six hours of Big Brother
repeats, then sleep as long as he wanted, take out more cash, do some coke and, well - let’s
just say enjoy himself.  At the very least, he felt, he was owed a few small indulgences. It
had been an awful day or two, quite horrific! Nobody should be put through that!

It actually took him nearly a week of pampering himself to recover from the day or two he’d
spent on the streets. But by the time he felt fit and strong enough to return to work and the
gym, he knew that he was ready to meet up with the Channel 4 crew. All the toughness
which he’d been unable to show during his stay on the streets, he was to display towards
the production and editorial team, helped by an expensive lawyer. He mocked the Channel
4 team, spoke over them, threatened them and even tried to blackmail them. He believed
politics now (post Grenfell) to be at a bit of a water shed moment and wanted to rebrand
himself fast; no longer just a tough, working class Tory, but a tough, compassionate, working
class Tory on the left of the party. The programme had to reflect the truth about him as a
man. Footage, facts and fake news that contradicted this greater truth needed cutting out.
Channel Four were to use no material which he did not consent to. He demanded to see all
footage of himself and rejected most of it. The events, he insisted, were to be told in his
own words. Channel 4 backed down to Toby and his lawyer on pretty much everything. 
Toby had to recognise that after one night in cardboard ally he had moved out, but his story
would be that a group provided comfort and support mechanisms that not all rough
sleepers had, so he’d decided to spend his second night alone to broaden his experience
within the very tight time-frame within which he was working. The story would be that he
had spent four nights sleeping rough (there just wasn’t enough footage to pretend it had
been the full week) as intended from the start.

The Paul Savage incident looked like it might prove a stumbling block to Toby as Channel 4
were particularly keen to keep this incident in, their idea being to beep out the offensive
language and cover up part of the visuals, thus giving a clear impression of what had
happened without being so explicit as to be likely to lead to a deluge of complaints. But
Toby was not prepared to be humiliated, and eventually the Channel 4 producer gave way
and Toby’s version of events stood: a threatening and violent tramp had appeared (Paul’s
arrival would be shown) and he had attacked Toby. Taken by surprise, Toby, an ex-soldier
and expert in self-defence, had been obliged to deal with the tramp rather more severely
than he’d wished to. The tramp may have looked quite threatening but he was easy meat
for Toby. Toby just hoped that he hadn’t done him too much damage. He’d held back as
best he could. 

He’d then got wind of the police arriving at the site of the group in cardboard ally and so
had rushed back through the storm to support the other rough sleepers from police
harassment. Like the other rough sleepers he had known full well that the promise of a bed
was just a tactic to disturb them once they got settled, but they’d been obliged to go along
anyway. Toby had done what he could to keep the other lad’s spirits up, he’d already
established himself as a leader by this stage, and though he’d been hugely reluctant to take
a room for himself, soaked by the storm though he was (and there was indeed a brief clip of
him saying that he didn’t want to take a room in the hostel), he’d allowed himself to be
persuaded as it would give him the opportunity to check out the desperately inadequate
shelter for homeless people in London and speak to other rough sleepers. 
Brief footage of him begging would be shown. Toby would insist on camera that the
experience had been a disheartening one, but this modesty would be contrasted with
footage of the moments where he received money all slotted together and the scene run at
high speed with London Calling by the Clash played in the background. 

It was to be stressed that whilst he had enjoyed the challenge, the experience had actually
been a rather depressingly predictable one for Toby. Issues of community policing and the
gross inadequacy of temporary shelter, along with the inadequacy of much private and
social housing in London had long been issues close to his heart, he insisted. The Grenfell
tenement fire, he said, (he refused to limit his talk to the incidents experienced on the
streets whilst homeless) had been a disaster he’d long seen coming. He longed to see a
genuinely responsible, market efficient, managed approach to this housing crisis. As a man
who had pulled himself up from nothing by his boot strings and also a compassionate
Conservative, he longed to see the Tory party approach this issue from the radical centre.
This was the way forward, he insisted, not socialism or a Third Way as the Labour party had
alternately espoused, but a Radical Centre approach.

The government, he insisted, needed to be ‘tough on homelessness, tough on the causes of
homelessness.’ What’s more there needed to be a return to a measure of genuine
community policing; as a military man, he pointed out, there could be no substitute for
‘boots on the ground.’ He was refusing, what’s more, to take his pay for his appearance
(having dropped out he was entitled to only a very tiny part of it anyway) and would donate
half his pay to the Tory party and the other half to Shelter. He was also hoping to set up a
foundation for homelessness; he had no intention of doing any such thing, but it would
impress in the short term and could easily be explained away at a later date.

When the programme came out, Toby’s apparent combination of kind concern and no
nonsense attitude, reflected not just in his rather military style clipped delivery and the
content of what he said, but also in the way he had dealt with a notoriously thuggish
homeless man (here was a man who still had a bit of the street in him) catapulted him to
stardom. Within no time he was contracted by the BBC to present a new series ‘Homeless to
Millionaire in One Year’, which involved taking people off the street and introducing them to
inspiring mentor entrepreneurs, all of whom claimed (usually to the surprise of their friends
and family) to have lived rough for a period before making their fortune. 

Shortly afterwards, with the Conservative Party struggling and looking for fresh faces, he
was offered the post of Director of Communications for the Prime Minister. When the
elderly MP for the safe Conservative seat of Snodsbury- on- Thames suddenly died and a by
election was held, Toby took the seat. From there he was immediately promoted to the
newly formed position of Minister for Housing and Homelessness, still keeping his position
as Director of Communications.

The government was on the ropes though and before long a new leader would be needed.
The other three or four likely candidates for the position were all Old Etonians and
Bullingdon Club members and some in the party, the New Conservatives as Toby had
branded them, believed that it might look better to choose someone from the other
99.999% of the population. Someone down to earth and tough, but also compassionate. The
ideal person would be a working class person who had toughed their way out of poverty and
wanted to enable others to do the same, because everyone could do it, that was the New
Conservative Radical Centre message! Everyone could become rich, everyone could become
famous, everyone could become successful, and an inspiration to us all! They just needed
someone who embodied their values. Few doubted who that person was. 

© Copyright 2019 James Arnold. All rights reserved.

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